Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Q & A Interview with Play This! Studios founder, David MacMinn

Head of new Aussie start-up developer, Play This! Studios, David MacMinn, has long experience in the games industry, but his new venture – to build up a local developer, is a whole new experience entirely. He speaks to Matthew Sainsbury about his decision to start up a new developer, and some of the challenges in the local market.

What made you decide to form Play This! Studios? And why did you decide to focus on the iPad and iPhone markets?

Well, it was pretty much a turn of fate for me to start up the company. After working in the industry here for many years, I moved over to Phoenix and lived/worked there for a couple of years. During that time, we had triplets (yes, triplets), and six months later, decided to move home for family support. In the meantime, the industry in Brisbane, and well, Australia, had dropped off significantly, mostly because of the GFC and the Aussie dollar was also very high, but also because of a rapidly changing industry.

So after doing the Daddy Day Care thing for several months, I came to the conclusion that this was as good a time to strike out on our own. I found a very talented partner, and we started our first game. We focused on the iPhone to start, mainly because of the ease of entry into the market, both in terms of cost, and submission/review processes. It also allowed us to develop part-time, while supporting other jobs/interests/families, which is certainly refreshing!

What challenges or quirks have you come across in building the company up?

I think the biggest challenge is the change of focus required. The requirements of being a Design Director at a large studio are very different to those of starting up a small company. Getting your head around possible company structures, legal issues, tax requirements etc, certainly is very different to what I had done before, but at the same time, very exciting to see something being born out of nothing.

What are some of the directions you see the Australian market going for games developers over the next 12 months?

As I alluded to before, we are in the midst of a rapidly changing industry. I think those companies that are agile, and have their fingers in many pies are the ones that will survive and grow. I don't think in Australia, the old way of doing business where you have 80-90 people on a project to make a boxed product can continue. I think some of the companies like Halfbrick have shown how a mid size company (40 odd) can develop lots of smaller products, for lots of different markets and be really successful at it. Those companies that combine medium sized work-for-hire jobs, where they are not locked in for years and years, while producing their own IP, are our best chance of moving the industry forward.

Can Australian developers compete internationally? We've seen cases in the past where developers have suffered due to exchange rate shifts, or other broader economic shifts. How can that effect be dampened?

We absolutely can compete internationally. Look at the App store top five. Half Brick have two of them, and I think Firemint’s Flight Control is still up there most weeks. So yes, we can compete, but we have to be smart about it. Can we compete with Call of Duty 27? I would suggest probably not right now, although Irrational in Canberra have shown that with the right group of people, AAA quality work is certainly possible, but getting those core, talented managers in place is very difficult to do, and very difficult to retain.

As for economic shifts, rate rises, again I believe that when you produce more, smaller titles, you somewhat negate that risk. When you have a big budget 20 million dollar project, and the Aussie dollar moves from 70 to 90 over the two to three years of the project- you have just done yourself out of a huge chunk of your budget! But by doing smaller, more focused titles, you are not so exposed to that.

You mentioned you're looking to expand. Can you explain that future? What is your growth plans into the future?

Well, we are still very small, but we have high hopes for the next 6-12 months. High on the hit list for that period is moving into an office, getting some work for hire jobs and using that to build our own IP, starting in the App Store, and possibly expanding to other digital distribution channels (XBLA, PSN, DSiWare etc). It is an exciting time to be a small indie developer and at the moment, there are a lot of talented people out there either looking for work, or finishing up game courses. We hope that we can bring some of those elements together. The end goal for us is to have a bunch of 3-4 person teams, working on lots of small things at the same time. An agile business is the best model that can respond to the rapid changes we are seeing.

Are you concerned with the potential requirement for App store downloadable games to need to go through the classification process?

Yes, that is actually something of great concern. The biggest concerns I have are cost to the small developers ($2000 odd from the OFLC website), and turnaround times. One of the great things about digital distribution is how fast the developers can get product to market, and even more importantly, how fast they can respond to user feedback. Would all updates be required to go through this process? Would the $2000 be charged for every update? If so, you are going to see developers holding back on updates, just to bundle them together for the OFLC. And that would be a great pity. Even worse, if this is how it will work, I can see small developers doing what we would all hate to see - not releasing their titles in Australia at all. And that would be bad for everyone.

What are some of the games we can expect from Play This! Studios in the coming months?

Well, we have a bunch of ideas we are currently prototyping, and hope to have more news soon! Stay posted!

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